LTAC Speaker Spotlight: What Students Can Bring to and Learn from Assessment

Faculty engagement has long been recognized as an essential element in successful assessment programs.  What has received less attention is the value of involving students.  It’s easy, alas, to think of students as the objects of instruction and assessment. But in truth, they are critical partners in the teaching-learning process, uniquely positioned to bring personal experience and voices to the assessment conversation and the process of improvement. Their involvement is good for assessment and also good for students themselves.

It is worth asking, then, how have students been involved in learning outcomes assessment? And what are the possibilities? The ideas and examples that follow here are adapted from “Faculty and Students: Assessment at the Intersection of Teaching and Learning,” by Timothy Reese Cain and me in NILOA’s 2015 volume, Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education.

Historically, the picture has been mixed. In the early years of assessment, students were seen primarily as the source of assessment data.  With policymakers arguing that it was “time for results” (National Governors’ Association, 1986) and with grades held in low regard, the trend was toward externally devised instruments that yielded scores and numbers. Sampling techniques were the order of the day, and attention to improving the experience of individual students was barely in view as campuses scrambled to respond to state and system mandates.

But there were exceptions. At Alverno College beginning in the 1970s, for instance, assessment meant a requirement that every student demonstrate proficiency on a carefully specified set of outcomes. Assessment, as Alverno leaders often put it, was “for learning.”  In that spirit, all students were (and are today) expected to develop the capacity for self‐assessment — the ability “of a student to observe, analyze, and judge her performance on the basis of criteria and determine how she can improve it” ( In this sense, self-assessment gave students a central role in the process. In fact, one might argue that the assessment students do of themselves is the most important form of assessment, as it fosters a capacity to monitor and direct their own learning in life beyond college.

In the early 1990s, the classroom assessment movement—which offered a set of tools and techniques that faculty could use to explore their students’ learning—opened up additional opportunities for students to reflect on and articulate their experience as learners. The one-minute paper, for example, asks students to identify what they understand or take away from the day’s lecture or discussion and also what is as yet unclear to them—an exercise that promotes metacognition, and one that students get better at over time. The purpose of techniques like these is to generate evidence the instructor can use for immediate improvements, but a corollary benefit is increased thoughtfulness by students about their learning experience and themselves as learners.

Today, the use of portfolios clearly puts the student at the center of assessment. Portfolios provide an occasion for students to pull together their work over time, step back from that work, and reflect on its meaning and trajectory.  The majority of undergraduate students today attend two or more institutions on their way to the baccalaureate degree—often starting, stopping out for a time, and starting again, perhaps on a different campus.  These swirling patterns of enrollment underscore the need for experiences that help students connect the various elements of their learning—across courses and disciplines, between the learning they do in the classroom and their lives outside, and over time. Assessment approaches that address this need—as portfolios do—are understandably gaining ground (Kuh, Jankowski, Ikenberry, & Kinzie, 2014).

Some institutions have recently taken the notion of student involvement to another level, finding additional roles for students in the assessment process and seeing them as “an untapped resource as institutions seek ways to prove their value to both students and society” (Welch, 2013, para.1).

One successful model of this approach can be seen at North Carolina A&T State University (NCA&T) as part of its participation in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Education, a multiyear effort to determine how much students change during their time in college. Looking for ways to translate the study’s assessment results into real improvement, the project’s leaders proposed that students be invited into the process.

At NCA&T, this idea led to the creation, in 2008, of the Wabash‐Provost Scholars Program.  Each semester, program leaders train a group of undergraduate students to conduct focus group sessions with their peers, faculty and students, to gather and analyze various kinds of assessment data, to develop written reports and recommendations, and to lead scholarly presentations on their work and experiences. In brief, the Scholars’ task is to “dig deeper” (Baker, 2012, p. 6) into the institution’s assessment results—helping to make evidence more actionable. Their insights are shared with other students, faculty, and administrators at a public presentation.

The University of California (UC)–Merced provides a different example of how students can be involved in assessment.  The SATAL program—Students Assessing Teaching and Learning—involves students in designing, collecting, and analyzing various forms of evidence to help faculty and programs improve their work through formative assessment. This might mean running a focus group with other students and producing a report on the results, interviewing a class and sharing what is learned with the instructor, or administering mid‐ or end‐of‐course evaluations and then tabulating and writing a summary report for the instructor (see

In response to exit surveys when they leave the program, SATAL students report high levels of impact on their research skills and their capacities for teamwork and leadership. According to one campus leader, “There’s a real cohesiveness among these students. They spend a lot of time together and gain insights about education and themselves as learners.”

Leaders of student assessment activities at both NCA&T and UC–Merced would probably agree with Josie Welch, director of assessment at Arkansas State University (ASU), who notes that “the key to effectively involving students in outcomes assessment is to intentionally match faculty need with student interest” (2013, para. 1).

Accordingly, ASU students have been involved in a variety of assessment projects. Often they are enrolled in research methods courses, so assessment provides real‐world applications of methods they learn in class. One group of students, drawing on data from NSSE and FSSE, “conducted an experiment that resulted in an evidence‐based report to deans on just how much faculty [could] expect of first‐year students if they ‘saw us as we see ourselves’” (Welch, 2013, para. 3).

In short, Welch says, “When students serve as statisticians, interns, and researchers, this is a 3‐way win for faculty, students, and directors of assessment” (para. 1).

The theme running through all of these examples is that students’ most important involvement in assessment is as learners. Whether they are creating portfolios of their work over their college career, helping to interpret survey data at the campus level, or consulting with a faculty member about his or her classroom, they are bringing their perspective as learners—and also deepening that learning by reflecting on it, talking about it with other students and with faculty, documenting it, and in some cases developing new strategies for studying and understanding it.

At times this can be unsettling, both for students and for educators, as students take on new roles and authority. But as these examples suggest, the process is powerful, giving students a greater sense of agency and an opportunity to contribute to changes that will improve the learning experience both now and in the future.

Written by: Pat Hutchings, Senior Scholar, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Dr. Hutchings is a featured presenter at this year’s Conference who will present on the topic of Assessment and Integrative Learning. 

To learn more about this year’s Conference, visit Hear what your peers are saying  about the LiveText Conference… click here.


Baker, G.R. (2012).  North Carolina A&T State University: A culture of inquiry. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

Kuh, G.D., Jankowski, N., Ikenberry, S., & Kinzie, J. (2014).  Knowing what students know and can do: The current state of learning outcomes assessment at U.S. Colleges and Universities. Champaign, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

National Governors’ Association . (1986). Time for results: The governors’ 1991 report on education . Washington, DC: Author.

Welch, J. (2013, October 14).  Student involvement in assessment: A 3-way win.  [Web blog post].  Retrieved from


This essay is adapted from “Faculty and Students: Assessment at the Intersection of Teaching and Learning,” by Timothy Reese Cain and Pat Hutchings in Kuh, G.D., Ikenberry, S.O., Jankowski, N., Cain, T.R., Ewell, P.T., Hutchings, P., & Kinzie, J. (2015). Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  It is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Copyright 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved.